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Artillery: France Leads The Way
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September 8, 2008: France is reorganizing its approach to forward observers (the specialists at the front who call in artillery fire and air strikes.) The new "fire support specialists" will now call in air strikes as well as air power. In most nations, the air force insists on having its own fire controllers for air strikes, leaving to army "forward observers" the task of calling in artillery fire. But the French generals recognize that this approach is counterproductive. Thus the current French force of 500 fire support specialists will be increased to 900, and all will be trained to handle artillery and air strikes.

The U.S. Army is still having a hard time making that switch, mainly because the U.S. Air Force refuses to give up control over air strikes. For decades, the air force has resisted, and insisted that only air force personnel, trained and equipped to be "air controllers," perform this task. Then came smart bombs, like JDAM, and targeting pods, like LANTIRN and Sniper, which proved enormously popular with the troops on the ground. That's because the smart bombs and targeting pods made friendly fire from the air much less likely. It's a dirty little secret in the air force, but in the last half century, more U.S. troops have been killed by American warplanes, than by enemy ones. But U.S. warplanes are now much less of a threat to American troops, and the ground troops can't get enough air support.

 Now the air force has become a victim of its own success, and inability to provide enough air controllers to fill the demand. There's a war on, and there are many emergency situations where a smart bomb could save the day. But without an air force air controller on the scene, it takes longer, if ever, to get the air force involved. Often pilots in the air get linked up with some desperate ground troops who don't have an air controller handy, and witness the impact of the air controller shortage first hand. Over the last seven years, hundreds of air force pilots have personally experienced this shortage of air controllers, and are coming over to the army concept of training a lot more people to handle calling in air strikes.

 The air force is still mesmerized with the idea that the air controller job is one that can only be done by an officer. But the army points out that they have had NCOs calling in firepower from mortars, artillery and attack helicopters for years, and that this works. The navy and marines have also had forward observers that can call in anything. Moreover, the army has developed a concept of "joint fires", where their "artillery controllers" would handle air strikes and naval gunfire, and thus become "joint fires" controllers. Moreover, the army believes that better tools make it possible to quickly train enough people, most of the them sergeants, to provide at least one controller for every 30 or so troops.

Technology makes a big difference. The army has a binoculars type system, which incorporates a laser range finder and a GPS. This unit produces the GPS coordinates of whatever the user is looking at, and zaps, with the laser rangefinder. If the binoculars are hooked up to a digital military radio, the controller can send those GPS coordinates to a warplane overhead, discuss the type of attack (bomb size, strafing) required, and order it to proceed.

As much as the air force dislikes having its pilots taking orders from army sergeants, equipped only with some high-tech binoculars, the growing demand from the ground, and pilots urgent for a solution, has compelled the air force to compromise. The current arrangement allows the army to train its joint fires controllers to call in air strikes, but only as a last resort. Otherwise, the joint fires controllers must work through the nearest air controller. Failing that, the soldier controller can do what they know how to do. It's a workable compromise, and the soldiers like and respect the air controllers (who are fighter pilots doing a tour of duty on the ground.)

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neutralizer       9/8/2008 6:18:25 AM
Hardly 'leading', some nations have had army FACs for decades, some have been dual training some their arty observers for decades.  Others are trained SF guys who don't need to drag an airman around with them.
What is happing now is that the majority are NCOs not officers, and they are in arty observation parties and in action (and others who are not in arty parties).  What's more the USAF takes their control instructions.  In at least one army operating in both Iraq and Afg, the arty officer not longer controls any fire him/herself, their job is to plan, coordinate and manage the local airspace, including UAVs for the company they are with.  Their party has controllers for arty, mortars, CAS and attack heli, and naval gunfire if there's lots of water about.  The French are just so behind.
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Camp       9/8/2008 10:32:17 AM
Call For Fire (CFF) in the US Army has been the domain of the 13F Fire Support Specialist (FIST). Unless things have changed, their repertoire included: Arty, Mortars, Naval Gunfire, Helo, & Combat Air Support (CAS). Although, it is more than likely that the ALO or FSO would actually conduct a CAS mission. And while it's preferred to have specialized personnel carry out a CFF, any member of the US Army has the right to "request" supporting fires (CFF)... it just has to be approved by the FS chain.
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3GAF    Response   9/8/2008 2:13:45 PM

This analysis is deeply flawed on several accounts, significantly ignoring the contributions US Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) make to the current fight and obfuscating both the preeminence of American air power and the complexity of modern day close air support (CAS) missions.  Further, your article is disingenuous in claiming the Air Force?s advocacy for JTACs is rooted in a preference by pilots to take orders from a fellow officer rather than an Army sergeant and fails to cite any evidence to back up any one of your many assertions—assertions that on further inspection are demonstrably false. 

First, your invocation of the Air Force?s ?dirty little secret? in no way supports your argument, and, while factually true, is substantively irrelevant and masks the reality of American air supremacy.  US grounds troops have been killed more by friendly fire than by enemy aircraft because no US military personnel serving on the ground have been killed by enemy aircraft fire since 1953.  No enemy aircraft have killed our ground personnel because the USAF has established air superiority in each major conflict since Korea.  The armed services work relentlessly to eliminate fratricide but it persists nonetheless.  The occurrence of even one case of fratricide would make your ?secret? true.  However, without USAF dominance of the skies above our combat areas, far more uniformed personnel might well die at the hands of enemy pilots.

Precision guidance and the use of Air Force-trained JTACs has reduced fratricide and has increased the reliability of CAS.  However, the technological advances of the last half-century have not made the employment of munitions from aircraft moving in excess of 250 miles per hour less complicated, rather, munitions employment has become far more complicated as our Airmen seek to create specific and precise effects on the battlefield.  This complexity requires a highly trained tactical air controller to be on the scene when munitions are delivered danger-close to friendly troops and innocent civilians—whether this JTAC be an officer or enlisted, Air Force or Army is irrelevant, so long as they have accomplished the necessary training and maintain currency in required skill sets. 

The unique requirements to safely use airpower in a close air support role go far beyond correctly identifying a target and relaying GPS coordinates to an overhead aircraft, as implied by your example of GPS-enabled rangefinder binoculars.  An F-16 is a vastly different resource to work with than an artillery battery. JTACs are trained specifically to direct the fires of aircraft and to ensure airspace deconfliction.  During a combat engagement, a JTACs attention must be split between ensuring situational awareness of friendly troop movements on the ground and being mindful of the situation in the air.  This includes maintaining awareness of current fuel states in overhead aircraft, navigating the requirements of airspace deconfliction, assessing available ordinance options and matching ordinance with needs on the ground.  This training is necessarily different than the training regimen used to produce Joint Fires Observers (JFOs) who direct fires from mortars, artillery, or naval gunfire.

Successfully performing the JTAC mission does not require an Air Force uniform or officer rank, but it does require successful completion of a JTAC course and sole dedication to the CAS mission.  Air Force pilots are not only willing to take the orders of Army or enlisted JTACs but already do.  Most JTACs are enlisted.  The race is on to provide a sufficient number of JTACs to meet Army and Marine Corpsneeds, but the answer to the problem is not simply to give any soldier with a set of GPS coordinates the authority to call in air strikes and the answer is not to give JFOs the additional responsibilities of serving as a JTAC without the requisite training.  This approach is what leads to friendly fire incidents. Rather, the answer is to push as many service personnel as possible through a standardized, rigorous JTAC schoolhouse as rapidly as possible while maintaining the high standards necessitated by the dynamic mission requirements our personnel face—something th

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ArtyEngineer       9/8/2008 4:49:08 PM
To ger an idea of what teh US is doing with regards to joint fires I strongly reccomend a good look at teh following website.
I posted a presentation for here over of the armed forces of the world board but I guess nobody noticed
- and Combined Integration Directorate, Ft Sill OK
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SMSgt Mac       9/8/2008 11:30:22 PM
3GAF's response just about covers it, but I'd like to know how an article that is at least 50% snark makes it to the 'Page.
I check here often for info but honestly, its getting harder to find the gems among the tailings. 
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Fundy       9/11/2008 9:08:24 AM
The air force is still mesmerized with the idea that the air controller job is one that can only be done by an officer.
The above statement is not accurate. The Air Force has been training and qualifying enlisted members to control airstrikes independently of officers for almost 20 years. As one so trained and qualified (back in 1991), I will say today's technology would have been welcome then, but it certainly isn't the substitute for a dedicated JTAC force that this article's writer seems to think it is.
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